Sam Spade on the Radio

You’ve heard the boast: America is the country that invented rock and roll; America invented jazz, the car, the Big Mac, baseball.  It seems fair enough to add Sam Spade, and indeed, hard-boiled detectives to the list.  That is, there’s something quintessentially American about the droll jokes, the world-weary attitude, the careful selection of haberdashery.  The irascible man in the trench coat who didn’t like his boss and despised authority but was ultimately on the right team and knew a bad guy when he saw one.  Perhaps all of this reflected the increasingly complex and frightening realities in a country that was increasingly industrialized, spread out, and urban. Americans had lost some innocence in World War I, and perhaps longed for heroes who could give them an unvarnished version of what they saw around them. 

You probably know that Sam Spade was the product of the imagination of legendary author Dashiell Hammett.  S-squared set up office in San Francisco in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, which of course was brought to the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart starring.

Sam first came to life on the radio in the form of adaptations of Falcon, with examples being the Lux Radio Theater adaptation from February of ’43 and that of Academy Award Theater in 1946 (with the latter starring Bogey himself)

But his main incarnation was on the relatively long-running series The Adventures of Sam Spade, masterminded by entrenched producer William Spier. 

There isn’t a major radio network that didn’t carry the show at one time or another: for ABC it was  Jul-Oct, 1946; CBS, Sept. ’46-Sept. ’49; NBC, Oct. ’49-Apr. ’51.  

Spier, the show’s creator and producer, had risen quickly through the CBS ranks to become the head of program development.  In that capacity, he produced the acclaimed series Suspense.  Moving to ABC, he developed for the airwaves The Adventures of Sam Spade.

William Spier

To play the title character, Spier brought in Howard Duff, a newcomer, freshly returned from service in the Air Force’s radio services.  Duff had just a bit of theatre experience but was already developing something a tough-guy persona, which he filtered through a bit of sarcasm, helping to achieve a less serious approach than Falcon and other radio series focusing on detectives.  

Lurene Tuttle was tapped for the all-important role of Sam’s secretary Effie Perrine, who took down Sam’s observations, which served as major support beams for each narrative. Unlike Duff, Tuttle was far from being a newcomer to the silver airwaves.  She was quite the opposite, an overworked character actress who also appeared on The Great Gildersleeve and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  She would at some point in her career work on as many as fifteen shows concurrently, and would eventually be known as “The First Lady of Radio,” though she happened not to be radio’s only “first” lady, and probably not its last.

But while something in the free-wheeling nature of Spade suggests a frontier mentality native to America, the show’s fate would be affected by a part of this nation’s history of which not many are proud.  The Communist hunt of the 1950’s had wide-ranging effects, and this program was not immune. First, Hammett, whose name was originally announced at the beginning of each episode, was swept into the dragnet of those seeking anti-American behavior.  An anti-fascist from way back, Hammett was also a member of the Communist party. This brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the major arm of McCarthy’s witch hunt. Just like we imagine Spade woulda, Hammett stood his ground and refused to implicate some of his cohorts, and this earned him some jail time for a contempt charge.

NBC, to no one’s surprise, had no interest in taking a political stand, and it dropped Hammett’s name from the show early in the writer’s persecution. 

With, Duff, however, things weren’t so easy for the show’s producers.  Duff was also far Left, and when he was outed as a sympathizer of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who refused to testify before HUAC, he lost his job as Sam Spade.  He was entered onto some blacklists, though he did manage to continue acting in film.

Steven Dunne took over in 1950.  Dunne was a blossoming talent, a just-known commodity, having played roles in the films Doll Face, Colonel Effigham’s Raid, and The Big Sombrero.  He would go on to star in Professional Father and would appear in two of the late episodes of The Brady Bunch. Noted radio historian John Dunning referred to Dunne as “a boy-ish sounding Spade,” and it’s hard to find a source that gives rave reviews to the actor’s performance as the iconic detective.

The show’s last episode was “The Hail and Farewell Caper,” aired April 27, 1951.  Sam Spade is, of course, an enduring element of Americana, an exemplar of the hard-boiled detective.  The program goes down as one of the best-made detective shows, a cohesive package of acting, sound effects, production, writing and directing.